Your Presence Matters

Recently Gerhard and I released our third podcast on the 5 Love Languages (if you missed it, you can listen to it here).

In this blog post I am reflecting on the love language of Quality Time, specifically presence. In an age where technology takes a prominent place in our home, many people are asking whether we still know how to be social. But I think beyond the usual answer of “turn off your devices when you’re with someone,” is a deeper cry for what it means to have a meaningful connection. How can I really be known? How can I help my children create real bonds with others—and myself? How can I show my loved ones that I am “there” for them?

Here is my first source for reflection:

Erica Komisar wrote Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters, which came out in 2017. It had mixed-reviews because Komisar touches on a topic many people find controversial: whether mothers should delay/drop their careers and stay home with their children, especially in the first three years.

Komisar writes that a mother’s presence in the first three years of her child’s life increases the chances of that child growing up emotionally healthy, secure, and resilient. Her research is based on more than two decades of clinical work as well as the latest neurobiological and psychological research on attachment, caregiving, and brain development.

Her advice goes beyond what she would consider ‘the best-case scenario’ --she includes advice for stay-at-home dads and for mothers who work outside the home full or part-time. She also helps parents navigate best options for outsourcing child care.

I think a poignant part of her book is the chapter titled “Presence 101”, where Komisar makes the distinction between an emotionally present mother and an emotionally distant mother. Even if a mother is at home full-time with her children, it does not necessarily mean she is “with” them, that it is possible for children to suffer from neglect even when the mother is physically “there.” (If you have not seen it, watch a summary of the Still Face Experiment, which I’ve posted at the end of this article).

Emotional and Physical Presence

To “be” with someone in the fullest sense of awareness includes both physical and emotional presence. Komisar mentions mindfulness, the Buddhist teaching of self-awareness engaged with the present moment. To be self-aware is sometimes a painful thing, especially for a parent who is on “survival mode.” It means to be aware not only of the good we see in front of us, but also all the painful feelings of hurt or anger we may also be experiencing.

I think this emotional aspect of presence is what makes being present so difficult. I know for myself that sometimes when I am with my boys I feel:

-bored

-guilty

-annoyed

-in a rush

-anxious or worried

-angry about something that has recently happened

-tired and wanting to sleep or take a break

-concerned with an upcoming important event/task

…if a mother is physically present but emotionally unable to connect with her child, it can be as painful for her child as if she were not there at all” (Being There 74).

These and other feelings push to the surface when I am silent or with other people. They disappear when I engage in light entertainment: music, video, audio books or podcasts—but also with frequent texting, glances at Instagram, and reading. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with light entertainment. They make life more pleasant and even more meaningful. But I think just becoming aware of how entertainment hides or layers over self-awareness can allow us to use it less as an emotional crutch and more as an emotionally healthy outlet for leisure.

Presence and Peace

To be with someone, and feel happy doing it, takes a certain peace of mind. It also implies not only an emotional calmness, but a general sense of order.

Life at home can often be chaotic, but I think there are two types of order that are necessary for bringing peace: an order of priorities and a schedule.

Ordering Priorities – Anecdote

Gerhard and I had already decided that we would place relationships first in our life over work. But within the category of “relationships,” we were having some issues. As you might know, Gerhard and I have a lot of siblings… when we lived in our hometown, almost every weekend was taken up with family commitments: birthdays, showers, baptisms, graduations. We couldn’t keep up with it all and it felt like we didn’t have enough time for just our family.

So we decided to create a hierarchy for our relationships so that when there was another conflict between different events, we would know which event to choose. At the top is our faith relationship with God, second is our relationship with each other, third is our kids, then close family, then friends, and finally other people.

Beyond that hierarchy, we also made a commitment to spend at least one day out of a weekend just as a family. And at Christmas, we wouldn’t overload ourselves with visiting people but spend a couple days just with each other and the kids, puttering around home.

These decisions make it easy for us to say “no” to the many invitations we receive and find time every week to be present to each other. It has also made our holidays more relaxing!

The Schedule

I know there are families lightyears ahead of us who manage multiple schedules and spend a lot of brain power planning logistics. I think of my parents who live out in the country and don’t have access to public transportation, so they have to coordinate “rides” for each child and their many activities. Inevitably events get forgotten, or sometimes someone forgets to pick someone up… Just the logistics of managing a large family and every family member’s needs (not to mention food, bills, housework…?) could give anyone a headache.

When you are planning on the go it’s hard to relax and enjoy time with people.

To make their lives a little easier, my parents have set up a little bit of a system. Even though my father is self-employed he always leaves for work and returns home at the same time. This gives a little consistency to their day. If someone needs a ride, they know when Dad is usually coming and going “from town.” My mother has a chore schedule that she posts on the fridge where each child is responsible for a task. She grocery shops only once a week, and usually on the same day. I think this aspect of “automatizing” some tasks definitely makes life a little less chaotic.

My in-laws live in the city and from high school age onwards their children often had to find their own ways of getting places—either public transit, cycling, or by studying for their driver’s license. Even so, there is still a lot to coordinate. Every Sunday evening my father and mother-in-law sit down to discuss the schedule of the week. They pull down the tattered looking calendar and talk about what events are coming up, who will be present at mealtimes, and even sometimes the kind of leisure they might like to have on the weekend. 

How much time is enough time to spend with your kids?

I don’t have an answer to this question! But a few years ago, my aunt gave me the advice to spend 10min of uninterrupted focused attention with each of my kids every day. I stay at home with my kids, so it should be easy for me. But it’s not as easy as it seems. With a baby who is just a few months old, you spend so much time nursing and diaper changing that it is sometimes easy to think that you’ve spent time with your child. But when I began to reflect on it, I noticed that it was difficult to sometimes enjoy and get lost in that 10min of focussed attention where I just sat with my baby and interacted with him. Ten minutes sometimes felt like an awfully long time.

“The ability to be in the moment and feel that there is no place you would rather be, no one you would rather be with, and nothing else you would rather be doing is a powerful thing” (Being There 69).

I think being present sometimes means making a mental choice to put aside other things (and it might be the cell phone) and be with someone we love. I know for me, sometimes this mental choice involves looking at the clock and saying, I will stay here and be present for so much time. At other moments, it means putting aside tasks that I enjoy to be with that person.

Quantity and Quality Time

Komisar writes that we can’t always plan quality time. But if we spend enough quantity time with others, some of that will be quality time.

I have so many happy memories of being on vacation with my family. Not every moment was quality time, but it was the quantity of time we spent together that I remember and cherish.

Togetherness and Proximity

In Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, he distinguishes between togetherness and proximity. The difference between the two is focused attention. My husband was recently on a trip where he went to restaurant where at every place sitting there was a small stand with an iPad on it. You could order your dinner through the device and then for the rest of the meal choose from a barrage of entertainment to watch. Imagine a family sitting down to one of these tables and each getting lost on their own device. This scene illustrates proximity, not togetherness.

When we are together with someone, it is not so much about what we are doing or what we are saying (if anything at all). When we are with someone, it’s about feeling the significance that the other person is there, that their presence matters to us—and us to them.

Opportunities for being together:

-Gardening

-Vacationing

-Eating a meal

-Going for coffee

-Taking a walk

But also…

-Cleaning up after dinner

-Decluttering a closet

-Working on homework

Being together does not necessarily mean doing something that is “fun.” The fun part of the activity is that you get to spend time with someone you love. I like how Marie Kondo in her Netflix show, The Art of Tidying Up highlights how even the mundanity of tidying or cleaning can be a moment where a family comes together to enjoy each other’s company and grow in their relationships. One couple on Tidying Up comment how they find doing the dishes together is a great time to catch up on each other’s day.

My Thoughts

I think there is an art to presence. Sometimes there is also an aspect of sacrifice. But I think there are always growing pains when trying to achieve something new that is meaningful. Writing this article allowed me to reevaluate how I am present with my boys, especially my older son who is in the terrible two stage. I found myself wrestling with some of the concepts. The good thing is that this reflection led me to confront and sift through a lot of emotions in order find again the person I want to be. I struggle with presence because I am the kind of person who likes to fill up my schedule and check tasks off a list. Now I add to my list, “play with boys” and it helps. But I sometimes feel irritated when my son wants to have more of my time than I had planned to give him. So one thing that I’ve been doing is actually giving my sons more time than I would like (doesn’t that sound terrible?) but I am experimenting.

Going from being an independent working woman to being the primary caregiver of my two kids is similar to driving on a highway, taking the off-ramp, and then slowing your speed by about half. It feels like you’re not moving. In this video by The School of Life I really connected with how they describe that gratitude for small things grows with age. I think having gratitude for small things gets me through the day sometimes and continues to bring me more pleasure with time. I am learning to put my needs aside and sacrifice for my children without losing myself and my legitimate needs. It’s a difficult balance. But I find that as I learn to find gratitude in the little things I see my life becoming more beautiful and joyful and meaningful.

And beyond that, seeing the big picture of why I am doing what I am doing helps me to move from moment to moment in peace.


Copyright © 2007 ZERO TO THREE http://www.zerotothree.org Ed Tronick (http://www.umb.edu/Why_UMass/Ed_Tronick), director of UMass Boston's Infant-Parent Mental Health Program (http://www.umb.edu/academics/cla/psychology/professional_development/infant-parent-mental-health/) and Distinguished Professor of Psychology, discusses the cognitive abilities of infants to read and react to their social surroundings. The video is an excerpt from Lovett Productions' HELPING BABIES FROM THE BENCH: USING THE SCIENCE OF EARLY CHILDHOOD IN COURT.
Gerhard Freundorfer